Professional Translators

39 of the worst pitfalls to avoid with translation pricing

by | Last updated Jan 12, 2018 | Professional Translators | 0 comments

Woman walking on dangerous mountain top as metaphor for avoiding pitfalls in translation pricing.

Translation pricing is full of pitfalls and sometimes we can’t help falling in. The best thing to do is learn from our mistakes.

Translation pricing is marred with pitfalls and sometimes we can’t help falling in. To learn from my own mistakes, I thought I’d make a not-to-do list of translation pricing. I came up with the 39 worst pricing mistakes I’ve made in my career. In this article I’m going to share them with you. Read on to make sure you avoid these pitfalls.

1. Not setting earning targets.

If you don’t know how much you’re trying to earn, how are you going to know how much to charge for your work? It seems unbelievable to me that I didn’t set earning targets when I first started freelancing.

2. Letting the customer tell you what to charge.

If the customer has a set budget, it’s great if they tell you what it is. That way, you can decide whether or not it’s profitable for you to work within that budget. But, letting them dictate the price without considering whether it’s profitable for you will leave you frustrated and unsustainable.

3. Doing mates’ rates.

Send your mates to the best professional you know and avoid mixing business with friendship. The rate is just one of many reasons you may end up falling out.

4. Doing free tests.

Good agencies use CVs/certificates/references/phone interviews, or a paid test. Bad agencies give you a sample of whatever they have lying around, refuse to pay and then sell your work on. Never again will I work for free when someone else is making money on my work.

5. Not having a minimum price that is a deal-breaker.

You have to know when to refuse a job because it won’t let you hit your earning target.

6. Not knowing the standard pricing in the market.

It’s essential to know what other freelance translators and different types of translation agency are charging their customers. Without this information, you’ll may leave money on the table or overprice and never hear back.

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7. Letting people take advantage of your better nature.

A one-off favour is a great way to show a client you care about them and are there to help. But if they keep asking and don’t give anything in return then they damage your bottom line.

8. Charging end customers the same as agencies.

Working direct with the customer involves a lot more time than if you have a good agency in the middle. Non-translation work includes quoting time, project management, quality checks, troubleshooting and post-delivery queries. There’s also the non-payment risk. The price has to be higher to cover all this. Otherwise, it’s easier to stick with agencies.

9. Charging agencies the same as end customers.

Good agencies take the hassle out of the process so all you have to do is translate. They also find the client. You have to give them lower prices than for an end client, so they can cover their contribution. The emphasis here is on working with good agencies that earn their share by doing their part of the work.

10. Treating an outsourcer like an agency.

If another translator is outsourcing to you for one of their direct clients, they have lower costs than an agency. They probably value quality, reliability and ease. They may not mind paying you a little bit more and taking a smaller margin. As long as you’re giving a top service to justify that price.

11. Outsourcing work to colleagues and not taking a margin for your time.

The moment you become the outsourcer you’re doing a separate job. You’re also liable for paying your colleague. You need to take a share to cover that time and risk. Otherwise you end up working for free.

12. Not charging extra for PDFs.

Converting PDF documents can take bl**dy ages. And if the agency gives you a bad conversion, that’s no bl**dy good either. You can’t do a professional job when the text is all over the place and you can’t read it properly. And if you have to check the conversion against the PDF then that adds time to the job. All of this should be charged extra. As you can tell, I learned this the hard way and am still angry about it. Need help? Here’s the PDF pricing guide that I live by.

These days I look at every job individually.

13. Giving agencies special prices because they promise volume.

A promise isn’t a job. When the agency offers a job with large volume, that is the time to consider agreeing to a special price.

14. Making a single client your primary source of income.

If you want a single employer to control what you earn and when you work, why are you a freelancer?

15. Publishing your prices.

For reasons already mentioned, you have to have different prices for different types of customer. You also need different prices for different jobs, to adapt to the time you need. If you publish your prices, customers won’t understand why you’re not giving them your lowest rate.

16. Not looking at the text carefully when quoting.

You’re in a rush. You accept a text without looking at it. Then you get a nasty surprise when you start the job: specialist terminology, strange concepts, non-editable images, dodgy PDF conversions and so on. No going back now.

17. Being embarrassed to bring up the subject of money.

The end goal of business is to make money. I work hard not to be fearful or embarrassed when it comes to bringing up the subject of rates, payment terms and non-payment.

18. Not pushing boundaries with new clients.

We should always be striving to earn more. Once our customer portfolios are full, we have the opportunity to price higher for all new customers. That’s one way of increasing our incomes over the long term.

19. Not checking international payment costs.

If you’re working with someone in another country, decide the payment method before you accept the job. Even if you end up accepting transfer costs or PayPal charges, at least you won’t end up in a fight afterwards. These days, Transferwise has resolved the issue for me.

20. Not checking payment terms.

Regardless of whether or not you consider payment on 90 days to be fair, if you didn’t check that beforehand then it’s your problem.

21. Being inflexible about reducing prices when it’s a good idea.

The industry is so obsessed with the per-word price that we forget to look at the specific job. It could be that a large job is extremely profitable, despite a low per-word price. It could also be that the strings attached to a high price mean the job ends up being a nightmare. These days I look at every job individually.

22. Being scared to negotiate.

Negotiation is part of business. I used to be terrified of it. But the more I learn about it, the more fun it becomes.

23. Not adding urgency surcharges.

If the customer wants the text this afternoon, as soon as possible, tonight, in 24 hours, then you’re within your rights to add an urgency surcharge. Full disclosure, I don’t always do this for good customers because a favour goes a long way.

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24. Not adding weekend surcharges.

Some agencies will tell you that you can’t charge surcharges for weekend work. But I’ve worked with plenty that are reasonable enough to recognise that asking you to start work on Friday night and hand in a document on Monday morning is asking you to go above and beyond.

25. Giving high-volume discounts to agencies with large projects that they split among various translators.

An excited agency writes saying that an important customer has given them a massive job. It’s so big that they need a team of 20 translators. Because of such a high volume, they’ve had to give an extra special discount. So you have to give them an extra special discount. Problem is, they’re the ones getting the high-volume and not you. You have to share with 19 other translators.

26. Not having a minimum charge.

The minimum charge is there to cover all the time a job represents for you. This includes interrupting whatever you’re doing, messing around with emails, doing your accounts and invoicing for it. Every job takes at least 15 minutes, even if it’s just a few words. If it’s a one-off favour, no worries. But on an ongoing basis, you have to make sure you meet your earning targets.

27. Not knowing how quickly you work on different text types.

I regularly study how fast I am at different types of text. For instance, I can tell you that I can translate your average tourist document much more quickly than your average academic essay. Knowing this means I know when to price high and when I can bring the price down. The objective is to always hit the same earning target.

28. Not charging demanding customers more.

If your customer likes to comb through your translation and ask you 20 things, and lots of them are wrong and then you have to write back to teach them about grammar, it’d seem reasonable to consider this a demanding customer and charge them more.

29. Giving 100% repetitions and matches away for free.

Occasionally agencies will lock out the reps and tell you not to look at them. Once again, as a one-off for a good client, okay. But be aware that the mere presence of the text costs you time. You often have to read it for context. You spot errors in it. This is particularly true if you’re going the extra mile to assure quality by proofreading in Word (so you won’t know which text is locked out).

30. Becoming an errand-runner.

Sometimes you have to send a physical copy of a translation like in the olden days. If you have to take time to make a special trip to the post office, then that time is chargeable at your standard hourly rate. Some would argue that walking to the post office isn’t as hard as translating. That may be true. But I argue that I’ll have to turn down translations to run that errand for you.

It seems unbelievable to me that I didn’t set earning targets when I first started freelancing.

31. Giving a standard per-word price for all types of editing and proofreading.

A lot of agencies use the word “proofreading” to mean check the accuracy of the translation against the source text, edit it for style and then proofread it for punctuation and grammar. That is very different to just proofreading it for punctuation and grammar. The task also varies greatly depending on whether it is a professional translation, and whether the text has been written by a native speaker. Nowadays, I quote proofreading only on seeing the text.

32. Randomly inventing hourly rates.

If you don’t know how much you need to make per hour to achieve your earning targets then your entire working life has no focus. Unless you’re working for some other purpose than to make money, you should always know exactly how much you need to earn and whether you’re earning it. See my webinar New Getting Your Prices Right for help setting your targets.

33. Not pricing like a business.

As a freelancer, I dedicate 40% of my time to activities that don’t directly generate income (marketing, quoting, book keeping, etc.). When I first started out, I didn’t understand that I needed to take this time into account when coming up with my rate.

34. Forgetting time off in your pricing structure.

If you want to take one month off each year, then all of your earning targets should be based on a calculation where you work 11 months and not 12.

35. Negotiating yourself down.

This happens even before you’ve made an offer to the customer. You imagine them thinking you’re too expensive and knock your own price down. Another similar mistake is telling the customer from the outset that your price is negotiable, but without adding provisos, like “negotiable for high volumes of +10K in a single job”.

36. Not having terms and conditions.

Most agencies and some end clients (like public institutions) will force you to accept their payment terms. In any case, I’ve found life easier since Lucy and I created and published our own terms, particularly when quoting direct customers.

37. Charging the same price in different markets.

Depending on the market where you operate, your customer’s local standard of living will sometimes mean that they’ll accept a higher price.

38. Not putting it all in writing.

Even if it’s just an email, it’s worth quickly writing out the number of words and the agreed price plus sales tax. Close the email by asking a question, to get a response from the customer confirming that they’re in agreement.

39. Not insisting on advance payment for large amounts.

If we’re talking a major portion of your monthly income, it’s sensible to ask for at least 50% up front. This is particularly important if you don’t know the customer well. If you don’t trust them, get 100% upfront. Though I personally don’t work with anyone I don’t trust.

What have I missed out? Can you add any translation pricing mistakes to this not-to-do list?

Join me at on 15 February 2018 for New Getting Your Prices Right 2018. Spending an hour deep in thought on pricing will pay for itself a hundred times over.

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